Tag Archives: Ken Balcomb

Drones may address mystery of early deaths in killer whale calves

Being able to measure a killer whale’s girth and observe its overall condition without disturbing the animal is an important advancement in orca research.

By running a small hexacopter, also known as a drone, at a safe level over all 81 Southern Resident killer whales last month, researchers came to the conclusion that most of the orcas were in a healthy condition. Seven whales were picked out for further observation, including a few suspected of being pregnant.

I was especially intrigued by the idea that researchers could track the progress of a pregnancy. It has been long suspected that the first calf born to a young female orca often dies. A possible reason is that the calf receives a dangerous load of toxic chemicals from its mother. With this “offloading” of toxic chemicals from mother to first calf, later offspring receive lesser amounts of the chemicals.

Miscarriages and even births often go unnoticed, especially in the winter when the whales travel in the ocean far from human observation. If the young ones do not survive until their pod returns to Puget Sound, we may never know that a young whale was lost. Now, this remotely operated hexacopter may provide before and after pictures of a pregnant female, offering evidence when something goes wrong with a calf.

Images of the whales can be combined with skin biopsies and fecal samples collected by boat to provide a larger picture of the health of individual whales and the overall population.

Images of the whales collected this fall can be compared to those collected by conventional helicopter in 2008 and 2013 to assess any changes in the animals. Because of the noise and prop wash of a conventional helicopter, pilots must stay at a higher elevation to keep from disturbing the whales. There seems to be general agreement that drones are the way to go.

John Durban of NOAA Fisheries, who piloted the drone on 115 flights over the Southern Residents, said he was encouraged that their overall condition appeared better than in the past few years.

“Most individuals appear to be fairly robust this year, which is good news, but it’s also very important baseline information to have if the next few years turn out to be difficult for salmon and their predators,” Durban said in a news release.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has a somewhat different take on this new tool. The high rate of miscarriages and neonate deaths have long been known, Ken told me in an email. It is the only way that they are able to control their population within the carrying capacity of their food supply.

“I am more excited about five whales being born and surviving since last December than I am about an unproven morphometric surmise that additional whales are in some stage of a seventeen-month pregnancy,” he said. “It is not wise to ‘count your chickens before they hatch,’ as the saying goes.”

The goal should be to recover the population, Ken said. When it comes to recovering salmon and killer whales, resource management has been a dismal failure. His suggestion: Remove the Snake River dams and allow the salmon numbers to rebuild naturally while fixing Canada’s Fraser River.

“With climate change well underway,” Ken wrote, “we cannot fritter away golden opportunities to restore viability in what little is left of a natural world in the Pacific Northwest while counting unborn whales.”

Other aspects of this new effort involving the hexacopter were well covered by news reporters this week. Check out the list below. The new video with John Durban and NOAA’s science writer Rich Press can be seen above. Last month, I provided other information and links about the new tool. See Water Ways Sept. 9.

Recent news coverage:

Killer whale experts will watch over young orca troubled by fishing lure

UPDATE 8-7-15
Good news from the Center for Whale Research:

“We went out yesterday with the mission of checking up on J39 who was seen earlier this week with a fishing lure hanging out of his mouth. As of yesterday we were able to determine that his new found accessory was no longer attached. Whether he swallowed it or it fell out on it’s own, we may never know. He appeared fine yesterday, and was behaving normally.”

—–

Killer whale experts will be closely watching J-39, a 12-year-old male orca named Mako, to see how he manages to get along with fishing gear caught in his mouth. So far, he does not appear to be injured.

Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research said it is likely that the young orca swallowed a fish on the end of the fishing line and may have swallowed the hook as well. It appears a white flasher — a type of lure — is still attached to the line just outside the whale’s mouth.

A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday west of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured. Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP
A 12-year-old orca named Mako seems to be caught with fishing gear in his mouth in this photo taken Saturday along the west side of San Juan Island. The whale does not appear to be injured.
Photo: Barbara Bender/All Aboard Sailing via AP

Ken said killer whales often swim in and around fishing gear, though he has never seen a whale with a fishing lure dangling from its mouth.

“I don’t think it is a major issue to their survival,” he said. “They are pretty tough.”

Assuming the fisherman who lost the gear was fishing legally, it would be a barbless hook, which might allow it and the flasher to come loose. Ken said it might be helpful for the fisherman to come forward to describe the setup on his line.

Ken said a male orca designated L-8 was found to have a large mass of fishing gear in his stomach when he was examined after death in 1978. The fishing gear was not what killed him, however, Ken said. The whale was caught in a gillnet and drowned. (Today, the articulated skeleton of that whale, named Moclips, is on display at The Whale Museum in Friday Harbor.)

NOAA Fisheries, which has responsibility for managing marine mammals, has hired the Center for Whale Research to locate and observe J-39 to see whether he is free of the fishing gear or has trouble getting enough food. Experts will look for a depression behind the blowhole to see if the whale is losing significant weight. The condition is called “peanut head” because of how the depression appears.

“We need to see what the whale’s condition is and if it gets peanut head,” Ken told me.

Howard Garret of Orca Network said he has not heard of any recent sightings J-39 or J pod, one of the three groups of killer whales listed as endangered. A photo taken Saturday near False Bay (west side of San Juan Island) was provided to Orca Network by Barbara Bender of All Aboard Sailing. Orca Network forwarded the information to NOAA Fisheries.

Lynne Barre, chief of the Protected Resources Branch in NOAA Fisheries’ Seattle office, said the following in a news release issued this afternoon:

“We’re obviously very concerned about the lure and how it might affect J-39’s feeding and behavior. We appreciate the reports from whale watchers who first noticed this and we will work with our partners on the water to watch J-39 carefully.”

It appears too early to decide whether a direct intervention would be helpful or advisable, but I wouldn’t rule it out as a last resort. NOAA Fisheries officials are hoping the fishing line will come loose on its own, but they will use any new observations and photographs by the Center for Whale Research to consider options for helping the animal.

—–

Meanwhile, in other orca news, Saturday will be Orca Network’s annual commemoration of the killer whale captures 45 years ago, when more than 100 orcas were herded into Whidbey Island’s Penn Cove.

The younger orcas were sent to marine parks throughout the world. By 1987, all but one had died in captiivity, but the one survivor — Lolita — still inspires an effort to bring her back to her native waters.

Saturday’s commemoration will be from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Penn Cove and Coupeville Recreation Hall. Speakers include John Hargrove, author of “Beneath the Surface,” David Neiwart, author of “Of Orcas and Men,” and Sandra Pollard, author of “Puget Sound Whales for Sale.” Music includes the Derik Nelson Band.

The day’s events will be followed by an evening ceremony involving the Sammish Tribe. For details and ticket info, visit Orca Network’s webpage.

Four ‘missing’ orcas return to San Juans;
L-54, where are you?

Welcome back Racer, Ballena, Crewser and Fluke!

And would anyone like to write new words to an old song that we could use to invite the last five orcas to the party in the San Juan Islands? (Read on for details.)

A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among the four orcas spotted in the San Juan Islands this week. It was the first time the group was seen in inland waters this summer. One group of five still has not returned. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272
A 29-year-old female named Racer (L-72) and her 11-year-old son Fluke (L-105) are among four orcas spotted this week in inland waters.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS PERMIT: 15569/ DFO SARA 272

I reported last week in Water Ways (July 1) that nine Southern Resident killer whales had not yet returned to the San Juan Islands this year. I’d like to update you with the news that four of the nine have now been seen, so we’re just waiting for the final group of five.

Dave Ellifrit, Lauren Brent and Darren Croft with the Center for Whale Research did an amazing job Sunday tracking down 65 killer whales in and around Haro Strait in the San Juan Islands. Meanwhile, Ken Balcomb photographed another 11 from the porch of the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island. Read Dave’s report of the encounters on the center’s website, listed as Encounter Number 59.

“Due to forest fires in several different places in British Columbia, there were dark clouds coming out of the northwest which made the sun red and the lighting a weird shade of brown-yellow.,” Dave reported in his notes. “A little after 0930, we left the L group and headed about a half mile north to a male who was foraging by himself. This was K21 and we saw him actively chase a salmon before he headed off to the west.”

The four “missing” whales spotted for the first time this year in inland waters are known to travel together. As I reported in last week’s blog entry, the groups of orcas have grown smaller and more spread out, apparently because their prey — chinook salmon — are not arriving together in significant numbers.

The latest four arrivals are Racer (L-72), a 29-year-old female, and her son Fluke (L-105), an 11-year-old male; Ballena (L-90), a 22-year-old female; and Crewser (L-92), a 20-year-old male. Ballena is Crewser’s aunt, and they are the last two members of what was once an extended family.

Yet to arrive to the party in the San Juans is a group known as the L-54’s. Some of you might remember a sitcom from the early 1960s about two New York cops, Toody and Muldoon. Anyway, the name of the show was “Car 54, Where Are You?” and it had a catchy theme song (See YouTube) that featured prominently the title of the show.

It just occurred to me that we could rewrite the words to the song, which would ask the question: “L-54, where are you?” If anybody wants to take this challenge, I’ll post your new words on this blog.

As for the group itself, L-54 is a 38-year-old female named “Ino.” She is closely followed by her 9-year-old son, L-108 or “Coho,” and her 5-year-old daughter, L-117 or “Keta.”

Also traveling with the L-54 family is L-84, a 25-year-old male named “Nyssa.” This orca is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-9 subpod.

Another lone male, L-88 or “Wave Walker,” is 22 years old. He is the last surviving member of what was once called the L-2 subpod, and he now travels with the L-54’s as well.

This group — presumably all five — was last seen in March in the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and in February in the Pacific Ocean near Westport.

Ken tells me that NOAA Fisheries funds his census work for exactly 42 days, and the funding has now run out with more work to be done. His nonprofit organization is continuing the search for the “missing” whales mainly with contributions, including memberships. See “SupportingThe Center for Whale Research.”

With the disbursed pattern of orcas in recent years, some changes are needed, Ken said. Perhaps he can get some additional funding to search for the whales later in the year, travel to coastal waters or contract with researchers already working in the ocean.

Another option is to provide an annual list of the whales identified in inland waters when the 42 days of funding runs out, he said. That idea would not allow a complete census each year, but the whales would eventually show up and could be counted at that time. That’s the system used for counting Northern Residents in upper British Columbia, Ken said, noting that researchers up north often don’t see all the orcas in any one year.

Increased funding for research projects, including census counts, could come as a result of the new “Species in the Spotlight” campaign launched this spring by NOAA. The Southern Residents, listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, are among eight well-known species considered at the greatest risk of extinction.

Eileen Sobeck, assistant NOAA administrator for NOAA Fisheries, made this statement when announcing the new campaign:

“Of all the species NOAA protects under the ESA, these eight species are among the most at risk of extinction in the near future. For some of these species, their numbers are so low that they need to be bred in captivity; others are facing human threats that must be addressed. If we act now with renewed commitment and intensified efforts, we can help these species survive and thrive.”

The other seven “Species in the Spotlight” are Gulf of Maine Atlantic salmon, Central California Coast coho salmon, Cook Inlet beluga whales, Hawaiian monk seals, Pacific leatherback sea turtles, Sacramento River winter-run chinook salmon and California Coast white abalone.

The campaign, which ends next May, will follow a detailed five-year plan to be unveiled in September.

Orca census shows increase in Southern Resident population

A census of the killer whales that frequent Puget Sound is due today, and it appears that the total population of the three Southern Resident pods is 82, up from 79 last year at this time.

But that’s not the end of the story, because two small groups of orcas have not been seen recently — so a final count must wait, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research, which conducts the annual census.

J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young calf J-52 (middle) and her sister, J-50 (far side). Both of the young orcas were born within the past year. Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research, NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272
J-36, a 16-year-old female named Alki, swims with her young offspring J-52 and her sister, J-50. Both of the young orcas were born within the past year.
Photo: Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
NMFS permit 15569/ DFO SARA 272

The three Southern Resident pods, well defined years ago, are no longer the same, Ken told me. The tendency the past few years is for the whales to split up into smaller groups of one or more families, known as matrilines. Immediate families tend to stay together, but larger groupings such as pods and subpods are becoming less certain.

“They’ve decided to mix it up,” Ken said. “This is definitely different. If we were trying to determine pod structures right now, we couldn’t do it. It’s all mix and match.”

The Center for Whale Research records the annual census on July 1 each year and reports it to the federal government by October.

Four orca births can be reported since the last census was taken:

  • J-50 a female calf born to J-16, named Slick, last December
  • J-51 a male* calf born to J-41, named Eclipse, in February
  • L-121 a male* calf born to L-94, named Calypso, in February
  • J-52 a female male calf born to J-36, named Alki, in March

*Update: Sexes not confirmed by Center for Whale Research, and J-51 likely a male. (See comments.) I’ll update later.

These were the first births among Southern Residents to be reported since August of 2012. Some people see these newborns as a hopeful sign for the future of the population, which is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act.

So far, one death has been confirmed over the past year. That was J-32, an 18-year-old female named Rhapsody, who was found dead on Dec. 4 floating near Courtenay, B.C. The young whale was pregnant, and experts believe that the death of the fetus inside her body could have led to her death as well. For more details , see Water Ways from Dec. 7 and from Dec. 12.

While there is no reason to believe that any other deaths have occurred over the past year, nobody can be sure, at least not until the last two groups of whales can be observed. If any animals are truly missing after their family groups are carefully observed, we could see one or more whales added to the death list.

In all, nine whales have not been seen this spring or summer since returning to the San Juan Islands. One of the two groups of whales was spotted off the Washington Coast in February, when all the whales were present. One of the uncertain groups was reported yesterday near San Juan Island, but I have not heard whether any “missing” whales were identified.

Since the census report is not due until October, there is time to see whether any more whales have died this past year. If any more deaths are identified, the researchers will need to make a judgment about whether the death occurred before or after the July 1 census cutoff. We can certainly hope that all the whales will be accounted for.

Ken suspects that the pod groupings are becoming less distinct because of the changing pattern of available prey, primarily chinook salmon. When large schools of wild chinook head back to the rivers, killer whales can work together to herd the fish and gain an advantage.

Ken says hatchery chinook may not school together as much as wild chinook, so the advantage goes to smaller groups of orcas if the majority of salmon are from hatcheries.

“The prey field has changed for them,” he said. “Back when we named the pods, the bulk of the fish were wild, and they were coming through in pulses. All these fish were related and from the same river system. Now with the hatchery program, there are less pulses and the fish are more spread out.”

The chinook also are much smaller than they used to be, he said, so it takes more effort to get the same nutritional benefit.

The Center for Whale Research, now in its 40th year, conducts its census work in Puget Sound under a grant from the National Marine Fisheries Service. The grant is fairly limited, so the center began offering memberships a few years ago to raise money for additional research.

This year’s membership drive is nearly halfway toward its goal of 750 members, with 329 members signed on as of yesterday. An individual membership costs $30 a year. For details and special member benefits, go to “Supporting the Center for Whale Research.”

In a related development, Ken recently took a trip into Snake River country in Eastern Washington, the source of upstream habitat for many of the salmon that come down the Columbia River. His experience and what he has learned about the Snake River dams has placed him among advocates for dam removal in this hotly contested debate.

After returning from his trip, Ken wrote an essay posted on the National Geographic blog “Voices: Ideas and Insights from Explorers.” Here are some excerpts from the blog post:

“Until recently, dam removal was against my conservative nature…

“In truth, already well known to others but not to me, these four Snake River dams are obsolete for their intended purposes and are being maintained at huge taxpayer expense for the benefit of a very few users. Plus, they are salmon-killers in a former river (now a series of lakes) that historically provided spawning and rearing habitat for millions of chinook salmon…”

“The technological fixes for the dams have not improved wild salmon runs, and there is nothing left to try. As a nation, we are dangerously close to managing the beloved Southern Resident killer whale population to quasi-extinction (less than 30 breeding animals) as a result of diminishing populations of chinook salmon upon which they depend…

“Returning the Snake River to natural condition will help salmon and whales, and save money. Please do not wait until all are gone. Call or write your representatives today!”

New orca baby doing well, closely linked
to 43-year-old female

The young killer whale born into J pod three weeks ago still appears to be doing well, according to Dave Ellifrit of the Center for Whale Research, who observed the calf when her pod came through the San Juan Islands on Monday.

The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female. Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research
The new calf, J-50, has been sticking close to J-16, a 43-year-old female and her likely mom.
Photo by Dave Ellifrit, Center for Whale Research

In his written notes, Dave said the calf, designated J-50, was staying close to J-16, a 43-year-old female named “Slick.” Meanwhile, Slick’s daughter, 16-year-old J-36 or Alki, remained some distance away.

Uncertainty has surrounded the question of whether J-16 is the mother or the grandmother of the new calf. If she’s the mother, it will be the first time that an orca over 40 has been known to give birth, at least among the three pods that frequent Puget Sound.

As Dave noted in his observations:

“While all the J16’s traveled together, J36 was consistently the farthest of the group from J50, so whatever doubts remained about J16 being the mother are about gone.”

Ken Balcomb, who founded the Center for Whale Research, was not with Dave during the encounter. Ken agrees that current evidence points to J-16 being the mom, but he is still not totally convinced.

“I’m staying open,” he told me. “J-16 is certainly the primary caregiver.”

There remains a little matter of the “rake marks” on the back of the baby orca — most likely caused when an adult whale used its teeth to pull the newborn from the birth canal. A 16-year-old female might need some help during delivery, Ken explained, and the grandmother was the likely one to assist. Such help probably would not be needed for an older mom, he said.

Jan. 12-15. Satellite tracking shows that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed through the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 12-15.Satellite tracking reveals that J pod came back from the ocean on Monday, Jan. 12, and traveled through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, reaching Victoria the evening of Tuesday, Jan. 13. The orcas passed the San Juan Islands overnight and reached the northeast side of Texada Island the morning of Thursday, Jan. 15. // Map courtesy of NOAA

I thought that the proof of motherhood would come when we knew who was nursing the baby. While nobody has directly observed any nursing behavior over the past three weeks, the baby is fattening up and staying near enough to J-16 to allow such things to happen.

But Ken says it is possible that J-16 could be lactating — even if she is the grandmother. It’s happened in older pilot whales, he noted.

“It is not beyond the realm of possibility that a grandmother could play the nurse-maid role,” he said.

Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 15-17. The whales continued north of Texada Island, then turned around and passed the island going south. // Map courtesy of NOAA

There will be no certainty about the lineage, he said, until genetic testing is performed, and that could take years — assuming the calf survives. Such tests could come as the result of fecal sampling or a skin biopsy performed by approved researchers following the whales, he said.

Meanwhile, since the calf was born, J pod has been moving around the inland waterways and well up into the Strait of Georgia in Canada, as revealed by a satellite transmitter carried by J-27, a 24-year-old named Blackberry.

Jan. 17-21. To save battery power, the satellite transmitter began sending signals every other day. Still, it was clear that the J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back into the Strait of Juan de Fuca by yesterday afternoon. This time, they were accompanied by K pod, according to observers. Map courtesy of NOAA
Jan. 17-21. The J pod whales traveled south from Texada Island and passed through the San Juan Islands by Monday afternoon of this week. From there, they made a straight run to the ocean, then turned around on Tuesday and headed back by yesterday afternoon — this time accompanied by K pod, according to observers. // Map courtesy of NOAA

A couple times in the past two weeks, the whales went through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and into the Pacific Ocean. But each time they quickly turned around and came back,

Last night, Mark Malleson of Prince of Whales, a whale-watching company, observed J pod along with K pod spread out in the Strait of Juan de Fuca near Sheringham Point near the south tip of Vancouver Island, according to his report posted on Orca Network’s Facebook page.

So far today, I have not heard any more reports, and the next satellite data won’t be available until later.

The succession of maps on this page shows the travels of J pod since they touched the outer coast 10 days ago. (Click on the images to enlarge.)

‘War of the Whales’ : A discussion with author Joshua Horwitz

The title of the book “War of the Whales” comes from the “cultural war” between the Navy, which is primarily interested in national security, and environmental advocates trying to protect whales, according to author Joshua Horwitz.

“You have these two groups that care about the whales but for different reasons,” Josh told me in a telephone interview. “One group is trying to save the whales; the other is trying to get a leg up on the Cold War.”

Joshua Horwitz
Joshua Horwitz

As I described yesterday in Water Ways, “War of the Whales” is really several stories woven into an exquisitely detailed narrative. I found the biography of Ken Balcomb, who served in the Navy, especially compelling within the full context of the Navy’s involvement with marine mammals.

Horwitz was successful in interviewing retired Navy officers, who explained anti-submarine warfare and put the Navy’s viewpoint into perspective.

“I have a lot of respect for the Navy,” he said. “None of these guys are villains. This is a totally different story from ‘Blackfish.’ The Navy is a lot more complicated.”

While SeaWorld, the subject of Blackfish, and other aquariums exploit marine mammals for commercial purposes, the Navy has our national interest at heart, Josh said, adding that some Navy officials failed to understand the full implications of the harm they were doing.

“They hate to see their reputation sullied as good stewards of the environment,” he noted. “They do care, and it almost tears them up that they have gotten a black eye.”

Through a series of lawsuits, the Navy was forced to confront the effects of its testing and training exercises with sonar, Josh said.

“I think the Navy has come a long way on what they do on ranges on our coasts,” he said. “They are taking the process much more seriously now. But they still aren’t doing that on the foreign ranges.”

As recently as April, a mass stranding of beaked whales was observed during a training exercise involving the U.S., Greek and Israeli navies. Check out a report by Greek Reporter and a blog post by Michael Jasny of Natural Resources Defense Council.

Book

New lawsuits have been filed by NRDC based on potential impacts to marine mammals, as revealed in a series of environmental impact statements dealing with the effects of Navy training.

“I really do feel that it is important to keep the pressure on the Navy and the government on all fronts,” Josh said. “There is a limit to what the courts can do. And there are enough good actors inside the Navy.”

One lawsuit, which Horwitz followed closely in “War of the Whales,” focused on violations of environmental and administrative law — until the Navy pulled out its “national security card.” The U.S. Supreme Court seemed reluctant to put a hard edge on its ruling, thus allowing uncertain security threats to trump potential harm to marine life.

Josh contends that responsible parties from all sides should sit down together and work out reasonable procedures for Navy training. They should include exclusionary zones for the deployment of sonar and live bombing in areas where whales go, at least during times when whales are likely to be there.

More could be done with computer simulations to train Navy personnel, he said. The other armed services are doing much more in terms of simulating and responding to conditions that may be encountered in real life.

“I have heard from well-placed people in the Navy that there is room for vastly increasing the amount of simulation training,” he said.

“We know you can’t land an aircraft on a carrier (with simulation), but if you can reduce the amount of live training, it would be a win for everybody,” he added.

Simulations would not only reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem, it would reduce the Navy’s cost of training, its use of energy and its overall carbon footprint.

One thing is for sure, he said. Government oversight into the Navy’s operations is nothing like the oversight into private business. The National Marine Fisheries Service is so outgunned by the Navy in terms of “political muscle” that the agency is relegated to approving practically anything the Navy wants to do. “I hope that comes through in the book,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Navy has developed the technology that could help quiet commercial ships and reduce the noise and stress on marine life throughout the world, he said.

“The Navy could take the lead and wear the white hat and save the ocean from noise pollution,” Josh told me. “When you mitigate for noise, the pollution goes away. It’s not like plastic pollution that will still be there for a very long time.”

At the start, Horwitz was not sure what kind of story would develop. It began with a meeting with Joel Reynolds, the lead attorney for NRDC. At the time, Josh had just taken his 13-year-old daughter on a whale-watching trip to Baja, Mexico. Like many of us, he got sucked into one whale story after another, and he came to learn about the Navy’s long and complicated relationship with marine mammals.

Horwitz has been involved in the publishing industry since the 1990s. He calls himself a kind of “midwife” for new books, which involves putting writers together with characters who have a great story to tell. He initially planned to “package” the story of the whales by working with a professional journalist, but his wife encouraged him to forge his passion into a book of his own.

Josh had co-written a handful of books in his life, including some children’s books, after he graduated from film school at New York University. But this was the first time he had tackled a project with the breadth and depth of the story that became “War of the Whales.” The project took seven years to research, write and craft into a full-length, hard-bound book. Now, a paperback version is in the works.

During the early part of the project, Josh continued part-time with his publishing business. Over the final two years or so, he devoted his full effort into the writing and follow-up research. To pay the bills, he supplemented his publisher’s advance with money raised through The Ocean Foundation.

By the time the writing was done, several editors who originally expressed interest in the book were no longer in the business, he said. As luck would have it, one interested editor had risen in the ranks to publisher and was able to help him complete the project and get the book into print.

Josh and his wife, Ericka Markman, live in Washington, D.C., with their three daughters, ages 20, 18 and 13.

“War of the Whales” can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

‘War of the Whales’ :
My take on the book by Joshua Horwitz

In the book “War of the Whales,” author Joshua Horwitz reveals, in exquisite detail, how Ken Balcomb played a central role in showing how Navy sonar was killing and injuring whales around the world.

Book

Ken, who we know as the dean of orca research in Puget Sound, has not been alone, of course, in the quest to get the Navy to better protect marine mammals. Horwitz introduces us to a variety of people, each with his or her own interest in saving the whales.

Frankly, I was surprised at how much I learned from the book, given that I have been covering these same issues as a reporter for many years. What really gained my admiration for Horwitz was how he was able to weave scientific and historical aspects of the story into a gripping tale that reads like a detective thriller.

I consider this book to be several stories woven into one. First, there are the personal biographies of two key players in this conflict with the Navy. The lives of Ken Balcomb, of the Center for Whale Research, and Joel Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, became intertwined with each other after the NRDC sued the Navy over its use of sonar around whales.

Next, we are given the history of the Navy’s sonar technology, developed to track stealthy submarines. We meet many of the Navy officials involved, including some who became emotionally involved with marine mammals, flipping to the other side, as Horwitz describes it.

The Navy has long controlled much of the research involving marine mammals — the original models for sonar. At times, whales and dolphins were even trained as military combatants, with mixed success.

Last, but not least, we are shown the legal arguments related to environmental law versus the need for national security. As a result, we see how the Navy has become more open today about the risks to whales from its testing and training procedures.

Horwitz paints intimate portraits of many of the characters, especially Balcomb, the biologist, and Reynolds, the lawyer. He sees the pair coming together from different backgrounds and uniting in their effort to protect the whales against the Navy’s single-minded approach to national security.

Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013. Photo by Joshua Horwitz
Joel Reynolds, left, and Ken Balcomb at the Center for Whale Research on San Juan Island, September 2013.
Photo by Joshua Horwitz

“Ken was such an extraordinary character,” Horwitz told me in a telephone interview. “He was a reluctant activist. Activism wasn’t Ken’s thing.”

The story begins in the Bahamas, where Balcomb was doing research when a mass stranding of beaked whales took place, practically at his doorstep. Navy sonar had been suspected of killing whales in other areas of the world, but Balcomb was able to secure fresh tissues — essential evidence to understand how their injuries were caused by sound waves. Balcomb also observed that the Navy was conducting exercises in the Bahamas at the same time, and he made the connection to the dead whales.

From there, other researchers and policy officials became involved, but Balcomb kept pushing to keep the incident from being swept under the rug.

“Ken’s investment was immediate,” Horwitz explained. “One night the Navy just plowed through and decimated this population of whales.”

We learn from the book about Ken’s serendipitous life. As a young biologist, he collected whale lungs for research by going to a commercial whaling station still operating in California. He later signed onto a research crew as a dishwasher, but his skills with a shotgun earned him the lead job of tagging whales.

Balcomb joined the Navy during the Vietnam War and became a pilot. A series of circumstances led him into Fleet Sonar School and the Navy’s highly secretive Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS. At the same time, his compatriots in graduate school became some of the top marine mammal experts for the Navy and the National Marine Fisheries Service. His later interactions with these folks revealed something about their past and present positions in life.

Horwitz ties all these pieces of the story together in a compelling narrative that kept offering me new and surprising tidbits of information. It took the author seven years to complete the book.

“He kept asking over and over the same questions,” said Ken, somewhat amused when I asked him about it. “I didn’t know if he had confused notes or what.”

Horwitz was seeking an extraordinary level of precision and accuracy, so that his telling of this true and controversial story could not be assailed.

Balcomb said he could find no errors, except for the conscious decision by Horowitz and his editors to describe two overflights by Balcomb in the Bahamas as a single event.

Most surprising of all was the account from Navy officials, whose story about underwater warfare has rarely been told, except perhaps in novels by Tom Clancy and others. Horwitz said active-duty military officials were no help to him, but he got to know retired Admiral Dick Pittenger, who opened doors to other retired officers.

“He (Pittenger) was a total career Navy guy, but he was skeptical about the way the Navy was handling some of these matters,” Horwitz said, noting that the admiral spent days helping him understand anti-submarine warfare.

Pittenger wanted the story told right, and he must have been satisfied with the result, since he offered this comment in promotional materials for the book:

“‘War of the Whales’ is an important book about a major post-Cold War problem: the often conflicting goals of national security and environmental protection. The author presents this very complex and multidimensional story with great clarity.

“I’m certain that no one who has been involved with this issue will agree with everything in this book (I don’t). But the topic is, by its nature, so emotionally charged and controversial that I doubt anyone can read it without a strong personal response. The importance of this book is that it tells the ‘inside’ story to the wide reading public in a compelling way.”

In my mind, Horwitz did a remarkable job of capturing the relevant facts for this complicated story. He then seamlessly joined the pieces together into a coherent and dramatic story — one especially important to those of us living in an area where the Navy maintains a strong presence among an abundance of marine life.

Check back to “Watching Our Water Ways” tomorrow, when I will describe more of Josh Horowitz’s personal views about his book and what he learned along the way.

The book can be ordered from the Center for Whale Research, which gets a share of the proceeds, or visit the book’s webpage, “War of the Whales.”

It’s a girl! Orca gender identified; her mother remains a mystery

Thanks to a baby photo from Jane Cogan, the newest killer whale in J pod has been identified as a girl, according to Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research.

The baby killer whale, J-50, with her family.Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research
The baby killer whale, J-50, reveals that she is a girl as she swims with her family in British Columbia.
Photo by Jane Cogan, courtesy of Center for Whale Research

We still don’t know whether the mother is 42-year-old J-16, known as Slick, or Slick’s 16-year-old daughter J-36, known as Alki. At moment, the family group, which consists of J-16, her three offspring plus the new calf, are sticking close together.

“It may take a little time for us to sort it out,” Ken told me, but the mother should become apparent within a few weeks, if not sooner, because the calf must be getting milk from the mom. From all indications, the little one is doing fine.

Initially, the calf was thought to be the offspring of J-16, because J-36 was some distance away. But now it seems just as likely that J-16 was babysitting while J-36 got some rest, Ken told me.

Yesterday, Jane and Tom Cogan of San Juan Island took an overnight trip up north into British Columbia, where J pod has been swimming near Texada Island since the beginning of the new year. Jane sent back a good photograph of the baby’s underneath side. According to Ken, it is not unusual for mothers to roll their babies near the surface of the water.

Female killer whales have a more rounded pattern in the genital area, while males have a more elongated pattern of coloration. A good photo is all it takes to tell a boy from a girl. For comparison, see Questions & Answers at Center for Whale Research website.

I talked to Tom briefly this afternoon. He told me that J-50 was acting playful at times, like young whales will do, with some tail slapping and porpoising.

“I would say it looked healthy,” he said. “It was following J-16 a lot of the time, but all of the family was in the area, and they would group up at times.

“We’ll show Ken our pictures and debrief him when we get back,” he added.

Because J-27, a male in J pod, has been carrying a satellite transmitter since Dec. 28, experts have a pretty good idea about their location, as the orcas move about. Check out the maps on NOAA’s website, “2015 Southern Resident Killer Whale Satellite Tagging.”

As of this afternoon, J pod, including the J-16 clan, was near Nanaimo, B.C., and headed south toward the Washington border, according to Tom Cogan, who was in the vicinity.

Ken Balcomb offers his personal observations about J-32’s death

UPDATE, DEC. 17, 2014
A news release sent out yesterday by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans confirms what Ken Balcomb suspected when I interviewed him on the day the necropsy was performed. See also Associated Press story by reporter Phuong Le.
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Ken Balcomb of the Center for Whale Research has written an excellent report about the recent death of J-32, the Southern Resident orca that died with an unborn and decomposing offspring inside her.

J-32 awaiting necropsy on Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C. Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research
J-32 was taken to Bates Beach near Courtenay, B.C., for the necropsy conducted Saturday.
Photo courtesy of Center for Whale Research

Ken’s report talks not only about his observations of the necropsy, which I reported in Water Ways on Saturday, but it also includes his observations as he watched the young whale grow up:

“The decade around the millennium was a difficult time for the J10 matriline – J32’s mom (J20) died at the age of seventeen in 1998 when J32 was only two years old; her grandmother (J10), who took over her care, died at the age of thirty-seven in 1999, when J32 was only three years old; and her uncle (J18) died at the age of 23 in 2000. All died young relative to the average lifespan of 50+ for females and 29 for males in this species.

“Fortunately, auntie J22 at age thirteen gave birth to a baby (J34) in 1998, and provided orphaned J32 the required nurturing of a ‘mom’. With that nurturing from grandmother and auntie, including perhaps a little milk, J32 made it through her infancy and into her teens to be a very vivacious young whale, full of energy.”

Ken writes eloquently about his concerns regarding the high levels of toxic contaminants carried in the blubber of the Southern Resident orcas. The contaminants are known to cause problems with the immune and reproductive systems. They also can cause brain deficits that can lead to behavior disorders. He writes:

“These pollutants are released to circulate in the bloodstream when the whales’ blubber fats are metabolized for energy when fresh food is scarce. It is like having a freezer full of tainted and freezer-burned food that you never have to eat unless there is nothing in the grocery store. When nothing else is available the bad stuff is taken out of storage and circulated for body needs.”

Ken also repeats his plea for people to take action in the face of ongoing disaster for the local killer whale population — including this sudden death of a young mother known as Rhapsody and her unborn offspring.

“This is a very ugly situation for the population of Southern Resident killer whales – our beloved orca. I think we must restore abundant healthy prey resources ASAP if these whales are to have any chance of avoiding extinction. The critical point for their recovery may already have passed. I hope not, but it will soon pass if we do not take immediate action.”

Ken’s full report is well worth reading. It can be found on the website of the Center for Whale Research or you can download the title, “Preliminary Necropsy Report for J32” by Kenneth Balcomb, Center for Whale Research.

Killer whale, age 18, was pregnant when she died

One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. The picture was taken in Speiden Channel on Nov. 29, five days before she was found dead. Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network
One of the last photos taken of J-32, Rhapsody, shown here in the lead at right. This picture was taken in Spieden Channel, San Juan Islands, on Nov. 29, five days before the female orca was found dead.
Photo courtesy of Melisa Pinnow, via Orca Network

Like many people, I was shocked and saddened by the death of J-32, an 18-year-old female orca who had offered an avenue of hope for the recovery of the endangered killer whale population in Puget Sound.

We now know from yesterday’s necropsy, that Rhapsody, as she is called, was pregnant at the time of her death.

“Yes, she was pregnant, near-term, 80 percent or plus,” Ken Balcomb told me last light after participating in the examination of the body near Courtenay, B.C.

The actual cause of death is not yet certain, but it is likely that the fetus died in the uterus, resulting in a necrotic condition that eventually broke down the mother’s tissues, according to Ken, founder of the Center for Whale Research. There were no signs of trauma that would suggest injury of any kind, he added.

Dr. Stephen Raverty, a veterinary pathologist in charge of the necropsy, removed J-32’s uterus with the intact fetus inside. Dr. Rafferty told me that he plans to take images of the fetus in utero tomorrow before continuing the examination. He said he would be unable to provide any information until he receives approval from his client, the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

As in other post-mortem examinations of killer whales, experts will examine tissues, blood and body fluids in multiple ways to gauge the general health of the animal as well as the cause of death. The Southern Resident pods — J, K and L — are known to carry some of the highest loads of toxic chemicals of any marine mammals in the world. The whales may also undergo nutritional stress because of a shortage of their primary prey, chinook salmon.

The last sighting of the animal was Nov. 29. Her body was found floating near Courtenay on Thursday, Dec. 4. She was a “remarkably small” killer whale, about 15 feet long, Ken said. Females normally grow to between 16 and 23 feet.

Rhapsody was born in 1996. Her mother, J-20 or Ewok, died when she was 2 years old. The young whale was then raised by her Aunt, J-22 or Oreo. Rhapsody is survived by her aunt and two cousins. (See Orca Network’s news release about the death.)

At age 18, she was at the beginning of her reproductive life, with a potential to add several babies to the dwindling population of Southern Residents, now at 77 animals. J pod is down to 24 orcas, with only a few reproductive females at this time.

Ken Balcomb said he hopes Saturday’s necropsy will reveal whether J-32 had ever been pregnant before, since killer whales typically become fertile around age 12 and often give birth by age 15. Her mother was 13 when she was born, Ken noted.

When the ovaries expel an egg, it leaves a little white scar tissue behind. If the egg is fertilized and grows, the scar tissue is notably larger, Ken explained.

An average female gives birth every five years, Ken said. That rate should be adding three or four calves to the Southern Resident population each year.

“Three years ago, I predicted that they should be having 19 babies by now,” Ken said.

Instead, the population is declining, with no surviving calves born last year or this year. A baby born to L-86 in September of this year was reporting missing a little more than a month later.

Rhapsody was the third adult to die this year. Also missing and presumed dead are L-53, a 37-year-old female known as Lulu, and L-100, a 13-year-old male known as Indigo.

Howard Garrett and Susan Berta of Orca Network may have spoken for many of us with this comment: “We cannot express how tragic this loss is for this struggling, precariously small, family of resident orcas of the Salish Sea.”